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Duquesne University, union spar over labor laws

Debra Erdley
| Monday, April 27, 2015, 11:21 p.m.

Almost three years since its part-time faculty voted to unionize, Duquesne University on Monday took its arguments to be exempted from federal labor oversight to a hearing before the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.

The Duquesne adjunct faculty members in the McAnulty College and graduate School of Liberal Arts voted to organize with the United Steelworkers of America in July 2012. Their vote triggered an immediate appeal from the university, claiming it is a religious institution exempt from NLRB jurisdiction.

Lawyers for the university and the union squared off on the issue before local NLRB hearing officer Dalia Belinkoff. The hearing is scheduled to continue Tuesday.

Union attorneys say Duquesne does not meet criteria the NLRB handed down this year that define religious institutions as exempt from agency oversight. Under that test, a school must be found to hold itself out publicly as a religious institution, and adjunct faculty must be actively involved in furthering its religious mission.

University President Charles Dougherty spent most of the day testifying about the school's religious roots and its mission. He said Duquesne is unique in that it is owned by the Spiritan fathers, who founded it 137 years ago.

Dougherty said religious art, philosophy, theology and Catholic Mass are a part of life at Duquesne. But he conceded that the faculty is not required to attend Mass or take part in such studies.

“We don't require people to do things that would be incompatible with their own faith or maybe no faith at all,” he said.

Although full-time faculty members are vetted for their support of the school's religious mission, Dougherty said he was unsure precisely how adjunct faculty members are hired.

Union lawyers are expected to begin calling their witnesses in the case Tuesday.

Dan Kovalik, the Steelworkers' senior associate general counsel, said adjunct faculty members at Duquesne are not required to provide a religious environment in their classes and teach curriculum the same way they do at other universities.

Dougherty and Duquesne lawyer Stan Brown insisted the school's appeals have little to do with Catholic social teaching on unions, and it has long recognized the rights of workers to organize.

“Duquesne is committed to the church's concern that the dignity of working men and women be respected, and that they have fair pay and safe working conditions. This case is about Duquesne's protection under the First Amendment from an unconstitutional intrusion of government control over us as a religious institution,” Dougherty said.

The school is among several Catholic universities seeking exemption from labor laws that require them to engage in collective bargaining with unionized employees.

Dr. Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, echoed Dougherty's concerns.

“From the time of their founding, Catholic colleges and universities have maintained a respectful relationship with the U.S. government, which has repeatedly recognized their contributions to the common good. We are confident that the courts will continue — just as they have many times in the past — to affirm the faith-based nature of Catholic higher education as deemed by the church and, conversely, deny government's improper assertion of jurisdiction.”

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com

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